Witchlanders, by Lena Coakley, (Atheneum, 2011, YA, 416 pages) is a lovely high fantasy for a cold winter's day, especially for those who like intrigue, fascinating magic, and dogs (there's a great one), and one I'd particularly recommend, despite what the cover might suggest, to boys (more on this later).
It's the story of two young men, whose countries have a history of bloody war. Ryder is from the Witchlands, where all his life his mother taught him to scorn the magic of the witches praying to the goddess and casting bones to tell the future, and his father taught him the hard work of farming. Now his father is dead, and his mother has turned back to witchcraft, and the prophecies she claims to see in her frenetic bone castings are terrible. If it is magic, and not madness, all that Ryder loves is in danger.
Falpian is a Baen, son of a noble family, who failed his father by not having magic, and who has been sent to the boarder of the Witchlands...to wait out the long snowy months alone (except for his dog) until his father's mysterious plan for him becomes clear.
But magic is about to enter their lives--the singing magic of Baen and the prophesies of the witches both. If Ryder and Falpian can overcome the hatred between their two peoples, and work together, despite their different religions and languages and prejudices, they can defeat the rot of old hatred that threatens to spark another war.
It's a fascinating world that Lena Coakley has created here, with its strange magics and harsh landscape lyrically described, and atmospheric as all get out. The tension builds very nicely indeed, in the alternating stories of Ryder and Falpian, as they begin to unravel the lies and treachery in which they have become entangled, and I found it hard to put down.
I found it especially fascinating that neither boy is especially likable for a good way into the book, and yet I, who generally prefer to like, if not love, at least one character per book, was captivated enough by the story not to mind (too terribly much). Happily for me, I did warm somewhat to Falpian, who is the warmer and more open of the two (although, and this is just my problem, I know--"Falpian" sadly didn't work for me as a name). I do feel, though, that the characterization of the two main characters was the weak point of the book--Ryder, for instance, tells his sister something on page 313 that, if the reader can believe him, sheds a completely new and unforeshadowed (or else I missed something, which is quite possible) light on him.
I was a tad let down by the (gorgeous) cover, which I took as a promise that there would be a main girl character. The girl shown (if she is who I think she is) is important, but not central...it's definitely the story of the two boys! Which is fine, but not what I was expecting.
I think that the YA designation of the book also lead me to expect more development of the complexity of relationships between the characters. Witchlanders, and this isn't in a way a criticism, seems to me like a rather young YA (as opposed to an old YA, like, say, Finniken of the Rock, which I would Not recommend to the younger reader), one that would be a most excellent book to give to the boy who loved, perhaps, the Ranger's Apprentice series, and who wants magical adventure without getting into any messy romantic entanglements. One could imagine the two teenaged boys a few years younger, and voila! An excellent middle grade book about brave boys using their new found gifts of magic to change their world.
(Getting somewhat sidetracked, and going back to the cover--obviously this book isn't being marketed to 12 or 13 year old boys who enjoy high fantasy adventure (which I'm using to mean books set in a self-contained magical other world). It seems to me that this is a rather under served demographic. Looking quickly over the lists of books nominated for the Cybils in both middle grade and YA, there isn't much high fantasy with boys). Nothing in the 130 middle grade books quite fits my definition--the closest I get is The Dark City series, by Catherine Fisher, Dragon Castle, by Joseph Bruchac, and A World Without Heros, by Brandon Mull. In YA, there's Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card, the Seven Realms series, by Cinda Williams Chima, and arguably The Floating Islands, by Rachel Neumeier, although I think of that as the somewhat more cozy "school fantasy"rather than the epic "high fantasy.")
Back to Witchlanders--it's also one I'd recommend to any reader looking for a change from paranormal romance! Witchlanders received starred reviews from Pubishers Weekly, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. It's a cold, clear read of a book, that made lovely pictures in my mind. I liked the moral too, being all in favor of age-old hatreds being overcome....and I hope there is more about the Witchlands to come!
To give you an idea of the writing, here's an excerpt from Chapter Four, in which Falpian finds his magic:
"The world was swollen with color now, blinding and bright. This must be magic, he thought with a shiver, or something like it. Below him, the birds in the trees grew restless, agitated by his song. They rose up in front of him in a great spiral, dazzling him. He could see everything so clearly now, as if a veil that had been in front of his eyes all his life had finally been lifted. He shifted his song slightly, and one of the birds stopped in mid air. He was amazed that he could do it, amazed by how effortless it was. The bird hovered right before his eyes, flapping uselessly, making no headway, as if flying against a strong wind. Falpian marveled at its green iridescence, and he laughed, making his laughter part of his song. No wonder he had frustrated his tutors; this was so easy. For the first time he understood what he had always been taught: the world was made of music. All the things that seemed solid—the trees, the birds, his own body—were really just vibrations in the great God Kar’s endless song." (pp 60-61)
Disclaimer: review copy received (very gratefully) from the author